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Transkills: supporting transition to University


Even in economic theory there will be things to discuss – the assumptions underlying a model, the real-world economic situations which an apparently abstract concept can help us think about. In more technical subjects and in your first year, there is less scope for heated discussion of topical issues. But even then, supervisions can be interactive – and ought to be so. A good part of the responsibility for making the supervision useful and interesting lies with you. Remember that most supervisors want you to talk to them and show an interest in what they are telling you (e.g., by asking questions).

Generally, in an economics supervision, you sit down with your supervisor and at least one other student (but often a larger group). The supervisor will go through your essay or problem-set and explain the bits you or your supervision partner(s) had trouble with. You should not spend the whole supervision taking detailed notes: leave your mind partly free to concentrate on understanding what your supervisor says. You might consider going away at the end of the supervision and writing more detailed notes to amplify those you made during the hour, something you can fruitfully do with your supervision partner. Given the frenetic term-time schedule, this may seem a counsel of perfection – but it can pay off. 


If you don’t make good use of supervisions, then you will squander one of the most important (and expensive) assets that Cambridge has to offer. From long years of experience, I recommend that to make best use of your supervision time you should:

  • bring your lecture notes to the supervision, having marked in the bits you don’t follow;
  • hand your work in on time, so that it can be read and commented upon thoroughly;
  • don’t talk too much, at the expense of others, and don’t interrupt your quieter supervision partners;
  • don’t be a silent ‘free-rider’ either, who merely takes notes and doesn’t contribute to the discussion;
  • have an intelligent question ready in case the supervision is grinding to a halt with time to spare;
  • consider reviewing the supervision as soon as possible afterwards, while it is still fresh in your mind;
  • leave your mind partly free to concentrate on understanding what your supervisor says rather than taking detailed notes.

Last of all, the most important tip: 

  • don’t be lazy. It is very easy to let what the supervisor is saying just wash over you, perhaps hoping that all will come clear later. If you don’t understand what the supervisor has done, say so.

The supervision 'contract'

There is an implicit contract between you and your supervisor.

The supervisor contracts to:

You, in turn, contract to:

  • assign useful reading
  • do the assigned reading
  • know the topic well
  • try to understand the topic
  • set reasonable deadlines for handing in work
  • write the best essay you can
  • read your essay
  • hand it in by deadline
  • write helpful comments on it
  • attend the supervision (or contact your supervisor in advance)
  • help you think through problems during the supervision meeting.
  • participate constructively in the supervision discussion.

Some supervisors spell out this contract in advance: most won’t read work handed in after the deadline; many operate on a policy of ‘if you don’t show up twice, you’re fired!’; some even stop a supervision and send you all away if no-one has prepared the work or will talk. But these penalties are exceptional. Most students realise that supervisions are an irreplaceable part of their education in Cambridge.